Review: Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence

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Review: Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence by Allan Johnson. (Palgrave 2014)

In Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence, Allan Johnson considers the visual influences of Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. Specifically, he asserts that the predominant textual and visual aspects of Hollinghurst’s oeuvre are “the sequences of writing which most successfully portray and vitalize the visual images of the aesthetic past”.

Alan Hollinghurst is a Booker Prize winning contemporary British writer who has been publishing since the eighties. Together, his five novels portray male homosexual identity from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods through to the present day. Johnson’s book posits that this homosexual literary and cultural history acts as a vital influence for Hollinghurst’s books, placing them within the distinct visual aesthetic tradition of “modern gay writing”, and imbuing them with a culturally-specific potency unique to this heritage. Fundamentally, his book aims to identify several specific images within this aesthetic tradition, while also exposing and explaining their innate, “positive” vitality as they influence generations of modern homosexual British literature, and ultimately Hollinghurst himself.

Johnson’s central argument is that certain images resonate throughout generations of literature. He claims this is because particular textures, shades and tones are especially potent or suggestive to readers, and subsequently that distinct visual sequences reappear within a specific discourse, such as “modern gay writing”. Such a thesis appears nowhere more apparent than in a consideration of the Edwardian period. Despite its relative shortness and the ambiguity of its parameters, the Edwardian era seems to have a deeply ingrained aesthetic within culture that separates it from preceding and following eras. One wonders what is particularly vital about the image of an English country house in late summer, its opulence suggested by the colours and tones hinted at behind sash curtains, amid a peace reigning within the almost-silence of its grounds. Arguably there is no image more associated with an august world of privilege, prosperity and nostalgia, besieged by unheard, yet imminent, drums of war. In its entirety, Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence offers readers an aesthetic theory of literary influence that is concerned with a body of literature broader than the Edwardian period. However, in pursuing this aesthetic tradition within modern gay literature, he defines a paradigm that provides new ways of accessing the particular vitality of the Edwardian era, and its resonance in twentieth and twenty-first-century literature.

As Johnson makes clear from the outset, his consideration of influence “as the product of a narrative form contained within – and not necessarily beyond – the texts themselves” demands a stark break from previous, and still pertinent, critical considerations of literary influence. Traditionally, the trajectory of influence between texts has been understood and studied as a biographical entity. The re-occurrence of a particular image within a later text has been heralded as proof of that author’s having read, and often admired, a previous writer. Johnson claims that the foundation of this critical tradition lies within “one of the twentieth century’s most commanding accounts of literary influence”: Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973). In this work, Bloom argues that new poetry, which Johnson also interprets more generally as poetics, is created by a later, “younger” author’s “forcefully misconstructing the ‘stronger [influential, preceding] poet’ in pursuit of originality’” (Johnson). As Johnson notes, Bloom saw this struggle as inevitably ending in the younger poet’s “anxiety of forever remaining the […] powerless, passive ephebe”. Bloom concludes that the ephebe, whose work is saturated by past influences, may only become the stronger poet as later writers begin to anxiously grapple with her or his influence themselves.

In contrast, The Vitality of Influence posits a Darwinian aesthetic principle as the key to this tradition. His first chapter “Influence, Image and the Movement of Time” provides a depiction of how “the vitality of influence” operates between, and within texts. Johnson asserts that while any object or textual image exists as a composite product, this compound is made up of many subtle textual components. He posits that certain images that are uniquely potent, apt and precise in conveying a particular emotive and visual meaning to a reader have been reused throughout “modern gay writing” due to that innate aesthetic value. Subsequently, Johnson claims that their inclusion within generations of British homosexual literature does not gesture primarily to any particular authorial awareness of pervious texts, but testifies to the vital poetic discourse of textual and visual images which has collectively been built up to surround narratives of same-sex desire.

Johnson’s work also proposes a queering of the traditional father-son paradigm of influence offered by Bloom. He considers The Anxiety of Influence as a “model [of] an Oedipal struggle” in which the dominating “father” is challenged and ultimately empowered by a weaker “son” who, fearing his patriarchal presence, must identify with him in order to write. Johnson contradicts this by proposing a framework that reverses this nuclear family tree of texts. He invites us to imagine writers, and works of fiction, that deliberately welcome the presence of their ancestors, rather than reluctantly grappling with them. Simultaneously, in place of one fatherly shadow falling on a text, Johnson focuses on an unconscious aesthetic gathering of a series of heterogeneous images, which proposes a more collaborative effort towards textual potency. Ultimately, he suggests that Hollinghurst’s novels, much like their protagonists, welcome and reify a multitude of elderly father figures whose influence is more like that of a lover’s stimulation than a parent’s constraint.

The remaining five chapters of Johnson’s book apply this theory to each of Hollinghurst’s five novels. His second and third chapters each focus on a different image that has resonated throughout “modern gay writing”. “Sun Worship and the Idolatry of Images: Derek Jarman, Philip Glass and The Swimming Pool Library”, analyses Hollinghurst’s first novel (published in 1988) alongside Derek Jarman’s contemporary screenplay Akenaten (written in 1986 and realised in film in 1996) and Philip Glass’ 1983 opera Akhnaten. Johnson highlights that the image of the Egyptian Sun-God Akhnaten is a particularly resonant trope within Hollinghurst’s novel, Jarmen’s screenplay and Glass’ opera, functioning as symbolic mixture of heat, youth and lust. Moreover, Johnson asserts that, as Hollinghurst could not be aware of texts written, yet unpublished, it is the “vitality” of the image of Akhenaten that leads to its lingering presence across each of these homoerotic narratives.

“‘Poets of Our Time’: Lateness and Pedagogical Influence in The Folding Star”, considers the succession of images of “pegdagogical eros” which Johnson demonstrates to run through Henry James’ “The Pupil” (1881), Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1910), Benjamin Britten’s 1948 operatic rendition of this Edwardian novella and Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star (1994). He claims that modern homosexual literary depictions of pedagogy are, paradoxically, fascinated with the haunting, but artistically powerful idea of “lateness”: the teacher who outlives the pupil and the destruction of forward momentum that education, in its broadest sense, presupposes. Subsequently, Johnson proposes that certain Victorian and Edwardian novels consciously manipulate the notions of longevity and remaining itself to produce visual potency.

The following chapter “Almost Always: Influence, Ecstasy and Architectural Imagination in The Spell” analyses the complicated relationship between permanence and transience, in Hollinghurst’s 1998 novel. Johnson considers the visual associations between Hollinghurst’s The Spell, Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913) and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). Within these novels, Johnson considers each protagonist’s vital memories of rooms, spaces and architecture. He posits that Proust, Waugh and Hollinghurst each offset a solid material structure, symbolic of permanence, against the more fluid and transient medium of light through which it is seen. He asserts that in all three texts the vitality of each structure is primarily defined by it’s insistence of reaching a viewer through space and time. This chapter is an intriguing mediation on an especially vital mixture of permanent and transient textures in “modern gay writing”. Moreover, here Johnson posits that both transience and permanence can be visual tropes in themselves that are used by writers to evoke an image’s vitality.

Johnson’s fifth and sixth chapters each focus on the visual trope of the “image of the author”. “Image, Text and Popular Press in The Line of Beauty” focuses on Hollinghurst’s 2004 Booker Prize winning novel. Particularly, he links this work with the late-Victorian periodical The Yellow Book (1894-1897). Specifically, Johnson considers Hollinghurst’s interest with the image of Henry James. Johnson demonstrates that the image of James circulates throughout The Line of Beauty and comes to shape Hollinghurst’s narrator Nick Guest’s aesthetic awareness more than the substance of James’ fiction, much like the image of the fictional author Paraday does in James’ own short story “The Death of The Lion” (published in The Yellow Book in 1894) which is also studied in this chapter. Johnson uses this connection between Hollinghurst and James to claim that the commercial creation and circulation of images is not a purely an economic phenomenon, but also possesses an aesthetic creative potential.

Johnson’s final chapter “The Latterday Sortes Virgilianae: Confirmation Bias and the Image of the Poet in The Stranger’s Child” ends with an analysis of Hollinghurst’s most recent novel. The Stranger’s Child (2011) begins on an Edwardian weekend at the Swales’ country home as George Swale comes down from Cambridge with his peer and lover, the burgeoning poet Cecil Valance. The majority of the novel is set years after this weekend as relatives of both men, academics, teachers and literary biographers each construct differing images of Cecil. Johnson argues that the image of this author is constructed by “confirmation bias” as each character “creatively supports [his or her own] impressions of the literary past” and that subsequently “Cecil Valance is not merely distorted, but begins to take on a new, vital presence that the person Cecil never was”. Ultimately, this chapter demonstrates how Hollinghurst’s evocation of the Edwardian period is not so much a fixed historical entity as a series of vital images which are created in the act of looking back.

This sentiment is synoptic of The Vitality of Influence’s relevance to Edwardian scholars and literary and historical scholarship more broadly. Johnson’s work demonstrates that the past asserts itself through, while simultaneously being formed by, a series of vital images. He proves that these elements of the past are not fixed as in a historical text book, but are fluid and vitalised by those that employ them. Johnson subsequently offers a compelling argument that literary influence is a central and embedded element within our relationship with “the visual images of the aesthetic past”. However, scholars interested in specific homosexual literary engagements with the Edwardian period and its place in our visual heritage may find Johnson’s work at times lacking. The Vitality of Influence draws on a series of works that emerge from the late-Victorian aesthetic tradition, and which regularly feature in analyses of British homosexual literature. Yet, despite being confidently, and many would argue correctly, labeled as “modern gay writing” Johnson does not directly deal with the question of why these are works of homosexual literature, and subsequently, how the images contained within are particularly demonstrative of an aesthetic homosexual tradition. These are several of the key concerns which a study of Hollinghurst’s place in the tradition of “modern gay writing” will be expected tackle head-on.

Having said this, the intervention that Johnson’s study does offer to our understanding of literary influence, its relationship with textual imagery and the visualisation of this within Hollinghurst’s work is rich, thought-provoking and timely. Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence concerns itself as much with the particular vital images that populate “modern gay writing”, as with mapping the unique methods with which images move through generations of texts. Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” model is challenged and extended as a more collaborative and aesthetic tradition of influence emerges which places the text, and not the author, on centre-stage. As such, Johnson has not only produced an important inaugural study of a significant contemporary British writer but a work which asks us to consider with fresh eyes the particular vital images we hold of the past and question how they have reached us. Doing so, Johnson’s book promises, will prove enlightening, satisfyingly complex and immensely productive.

Jack Sargent, August 2015 [Jack Sargent is PhD student at the University of Exeter, mainly researching British homosexual literature and culture 1870 to present day. His PhD focuses on the aesthetic, emotive and cultural significance of time passing, memory, nostalgia and ageing within male homosexual literature in the period.]

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